Việt Nam: where the unexpected is normal

You knew when sitting next to the fireplace in freezing, wherever, that booking a trip to Việt Nam would be an adventure, right?

That it wasn’t Thailand – all dancing girls and choking in the back of the Tuk-tuk.

That it wasn’t Singapore, all glistening steel and mega-hotels.

That it wasn’t Malaysia, all bargain shopping and street curry.

Just checking…

Straight off the airplane in Hồ Chí Minh City or Hà Nội you can just feel it’s all different.

The chaos, the noise.

The Vietnamese busily chat on the phone even as the plane has just landed and is still rolling towards the terminal.

They cart five huge parcels for their auntie’s shop dangerously balanced on their airport trolleys, rushing for the exit.

It’s an endless, non-stop “I’m doing my own thing: in a human cloud of confusion and energy.

Welcome to Việt Nam!

So you do the tours in both major cities.

Yes, good, lovely, hang on honey!

I want a picture of you in front of that tiny man with the ice-cream hat!

You did the cyclo, the museums, the lake, the river and bought something for your loved ones back home, which you’re going to carry around Việt Nam for the next two weeks unless the receptionist’s cousin’s uncle’s shipping business can help you out.

ResortA resort in Đà Nẵng City in central Việt Nam

I often wonder about some tourists.

It seems like they wander around with a checklist in their heads.

Souvenirs – checked.

Tried to negotiate with local people for a ride around town – done it.

Visited every place the Lonely Planet said I should see – yep.

Maybe it’s just me, I do live here after all so perhaps I’m a little bit too harsh towards tourists.

I know a tourist’s time is short and often exhausting.

It makes me wonder why we call modern tourism a ‘holiday’ because it seems more like the pain of paying a traffic fine.

You’re getting tired and feel the need to get out of the big cities.

It’s all too busy and reminds you of why you needed a holiday from your busy world in the first place.

A great holiday is full of surprises.

It’s time to go inland or upland or to the sea.

Open Lonely Planet to page whatever and spend the morning reading it out aloud to your partner.

Have a small argument – decide on somewhere.

Terrific!

With any luck, you’ve ended up in my neck of the woods – central Việt Nam.

I’m not sure whether you’d agree to my proposition that the trick to enjoying Việt Nam is to look beyond the traffic and the quick pace of life.

Look at what people are doing, how they do it, how the Vietnamese passion for living plays out right in front of your eyes.

The Vietnamese living room is the street.

The sofa is the motorbike.

The desk, office or kitchen is anywhere handy and the television is chatting with your neighbors.

Here in the center there are a thousand places to visit – sure, not that accessible but doable.

A lot of tourists grab the opportunity to ride bicycles in Hội An and some of the smaller places but you could also just take a boat for the day and throw the travel guide book into the harbor while you’re at it…

Life outside the cities is full of surprises, little unexpected things.

Even as I’m writing this, a gecko, that small lizard with the fat, round fingers that walks up the walls and gobbles up the flies is slowly crawling across the TV screen in the bar where I’m sitting.

You never know what will happen that’s nice and usually not dangerous!

Sure, do the sights, but why not get your horoscope read by the local Sharman?

Get a decent map and walk for a few blocks – yes, walk – check how people live for all the world to see – the local hairdresser with a lamp on her head picking out ear wax.

Check out the dude down the street welding metal in open toe sandals or the motorbike seat tailors plying their trade between the mobile phone shops.

Shopping is a scream in the local shops.

Prepare to be pushed, shoved, nudged and generally treated like a nuisance!

It’s even better fun trying to tell the difference between the blue 20,000 đồng note and the half million dong note in the dark lighting of a local café.

Gotta watch that one!

Check your notes by the way and learn to give the cashiers the faded old notes but don’t be surprised if they refuse to take them and demand fresh money!

I love watching the farmers cart pigs in baskets, stacked four or five high on an old Honda cub.

I also like seeing the electricity guys carrying a four meter bamboo ladder across four lanes of traffic.

Even better is when you have four of these guys in the middle of an intersection – no warning gear – three holding the ladder and the fourth swaying back and forth at the top wiring up festival lights.

Cirque de Soleil, you guys should visit Việt Nam and take notes!

A motorbike tour is a must-do.

Either ride it yourself or get a guide and driver.

There’s nothing quite like having to swerve around a tourist bus, a taxi, and cows crossing the street.

You can marvel at the dogs sleeping in the street with the same disregard for personal safety as their owners.

The most fun is scratching your head trying to figure out why someone decided to extend their wedding venue to part of the road at peak hour.

Wedding music is the only sound I know of that can drown out a construction truck horn!

You can’t see or experience this stuff in the big cities.

Unpredictable, unexpected, “what just happened?” moments are all around you in central Việt Nam.

For the average Vietnamese in the countryside, foreigners are just obstacles to go around.

We’re part of the background as they focus on the need to make a living or chill out over card games in ‘a million’ bamboo shack coffee shops.

It’s quite easy to get up close and see what they do.

A local market outside any main town is a real revelation, a blast from the past; the way humans have haggled and bartered for centuries in between gossip and hard bargaining.

Have you ever heard a thousand women shopping at the same time?

Do buy some fruit, you’ll quickly discover the taste different to what chemical preservation is in a modern supermarket.

Above all, get to the mountains and look back at the beach.

Central Việt Nam has some of the best landscapes in the world.

The best time to go is on a sunny day after a rainy night.

It clears the sand and dust so you can see for miles.

Yet again, be ready for anything.

There are trucks rolling around tight corners, ducks crossing the street, wild buffalo staring you down, and views to die for.

Go slowly, you’ll see sudden glimpses of sparkling rivers hidden between sharp valleys and cool clouds floating around like daydreams.

Someone once said that the best way to travel is just to pick a direction and go.

Việt Nam is waiting to surprise you at every turn, corner, and way.

Take it all in stride and remember that’s why you came here – for the unexpected.

STIVI COOKE

Source: Tuổi Trẻ News

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